ESPN, Stephen A. shocked to learn how explicitly the Astros cheated | First Take
Penalties and Punishment
- Major League Baseball announced punishment for the Houston Astros, including one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, loss of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine, after an MLB investigation found the team used technology to cheat during its World Series-winning 2017 season. Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.
- One day later, the Boston Red Sox parted ways with manager Alex Cora after the skipper was implicated in the investigation for his role as Astros bench coach. And two days after that, Carlos Beltran, the only player mentioned in MLB's report on the Astros, was out as manager of the New York Mets before beginning his first year with the team.
- It's clear Rob Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He has certainly done so. For that matter, so did Astros owner Jim Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow.
- Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both are at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a "no tolerance" policy about future embarrassments. He didn't do that, and good for him. It couldn't have been easy.
- To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We'll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams.
- The blurring of lines with regard to the use of video, particularly before the new rules in 2018 and 2019 more clearly defined what was allowed, allowed teams to develop questionable habits. Were those habits blatantly illegal? That's a question with an expansive gray area. Were those habits morally or ethically objectionable? That's not entirely clear, either, but if this were to go in front of an unwritten-rules arbiter, the judgment would pretty clearly be: not cool.
- Should MLB just ban in-game video use altogether? Players wouldn't like it, but here we are, in this position because of players' choices.
- The hope from the league is that the penalties here are so harsh that nobody would dare consider doing this in the future. Which ... sounds an awful lot like what happened when the league first instituted penalties for PEDs. The problem here is that cheating runs on such a wide-ranging continuum whereas PED use is extraordinarily binary. There are either drugs in your urine or there aren't. If there aren't, you're cool, and if there are, you're suspended.
- Electronic cheating tends to be a multiperson exercise from two different populations -- players and team employees -- and standardizing suspensions is almost impossible, even if knowing for certain the hammer was going to be laid might deter some from even considering it.
- For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don't deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It's time for baseball to return to a competition between players -- not a competition between technology.
- So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?
That's where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted "it made us look guilty."
The guidelines in the six-page document created rules concerning placement and usage of center-field cameras, plus TVs and monitors, and mandated screens be on an eight-second delay. MLB also placed league employees at stadiums to monitor activity.
- Have there been any past punishments for sign stealing?
The Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017, with commissioner Rob Manfred issuing a statement at the time that "all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks."